February 19, 2019 / Mark Ames

A Green New Deal for Worker Health and Safety?

Even before it was unveiled, there was controversy. Would it be the jolt our country needs to combat climate change, or would it push us toward socialism, far away from the America we know? When it was finally introduced earlier this month, the Green New Deal (H.Res.109 / S.Res.59) sparked still more questions and thrust a raft of interrelated issues onto the national stage. Among those issues isworker health and safety.

Found deep within the text of the Green New Deal is the following:

[T]o achieve the Green New Deal goals and mobilization, a Green New Deal will require the following goals and projects – … strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety,antidiscrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries and sectors.[emphasis added]

Setting aside arguments concerning the propriety of the Green New Deal, we can explore the connections between sustainability and occupational and environmental health and safety. Although the connections are not often made, OEHS and sustainability have much in common.

“Sustainability” can be a somewhat amorphous term that means different things to different people. Those who seek to define it often look to the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s report (PDF), which stated that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition is in harmony with OEHS, which seeks to protect people and the environment so that the work performed today does not adversely impact the ability to do work tomorrow. There are numerous other ways to characterize both sustainability and OEHS, but the broader revelation is that a connection exists between these issues.

Throughout the past several years, many trade associations and other nonprofits have begun focusing on sustainability, and a number of organizations have spawned that seek to bring businesses together on sustainability. Examples of these organizations include the American Sustainable Business Council, the United States Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the Network for Business Sustainability. In 2011, a new group joined the scene: the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability, a joint effort of AIHA, the American Society of Safety Professionals, the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering, and the Institution for Occupational Safety and Health.

In its own words, CSHS

was established to create awareness of the fact that a sustainable organization cannot be one that does not ensure safe and healthy working conditions for its employees and contractors. Unfortunately, when an organization considers the "social" aspect of its own sustainability picture, occupational safety and health receives very little attention, if any at all.

To remedy this problem, CSHS has laid out four goals and produced several useful reports and resourcesthat are worth a look.

Driving the connection home further, in 2016, OSHA released a report entitled “Sustainability in the Workplace: A New Approach for Advancing Worker Safety and Health”(PDF). This 39-page document presents a thoughtful treatment of the intersections between OSH and sustainability, including key historical developments, lessons learned, opportunities, challenges, and potential future actions. The report concludes that

sustainability is a powerful social movement. Over time, it has gained political will, economic force, and public recognition. OSHA and others have the opportunity to leverage this power; to take advantage of the momentum that has already been generated; to transform the way that worker safety and health is viewed and understood; and ultimately, to advance sustainability in the workplace.

These remarks foreshadow the recently proposed Green New Deal and the paths that lay before us. There are some who seek radical change, frustrated that problems so clear to them are not seen by their peers, while others call for moderation and incremental progress, and still others are diametrically opposed. All sides are right in their own view. However, it is the lesson of history that the wisest policies are more often enacted when broad consensus is assiduously pursued and scientific knowledge prevails. We all benefit when businesses, workers, environmentalists, and many others come together for the common purpose of achieving our shared goals on sustainability and many other issues. Be sure to check out AIHA’s Public Policy Agenda for 2019 – 2020 (PDF) to learn more about our plans to tackle some of our nation’s most important worker health and safety issues.

Mark Ames

Mark Ames is AIHA’s director of Government Relations.


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